All the Bells and Jesses: Falconry in the Middle Ages (Medieval Mondays #6d)

In the medieval times, hunting with dogs was the most typical form of the sport.

It wasn’t, however, the only way to bring down prey – or even the most popular one, particularly among the noble class.

Neither were deer and boar – which were restricted to all but the king and his favourites – foxes, hares, squirrels, and other beasts of the warren the only quarry that was hunted during the Middle Ages.

Rather, medieval people also hunted birds, for which hawks were the only means of bringing down those that could fly beyond he range of arrows.

More than just an adaptation to the limitations of the bow, though, according to Joseph and Frances Gies, authors of Life in a Medieval Castle,

[T]he form of hunting that stirred the widest interest throughout medieval Europe was falconry….  Every king, noble, baron, and lord of the manor had his falcons. (p. 128)

So too did the clergy, for all their disdain for hunting with hounds, have a passionate interest in the sport of falconry.

Birds and words

Two categories of birds were used in medieval falconry, which involved a specialized vocabulary that is far more precise than how we describe such birds of prey today.

The true falcons (i.e. long-winged hawks) included the gerfalcon and the peregrine – both of which were used to hunt waterfowl – and the merlin, which was used for smaller birds.

The second category was that of the short-winged hawks, which included the sparrow hawk and goshawk.  Short-winged hawks performed much better in woodlands, where long-wing hawks were at a disadvantage.

Additional terminology included the fact that only a female bird, which was larger and more aggressive than the male, was properly called a falcon.  A male was known as a tiercel, and was generally considered inferior.

So too were short-winged hawks in general deemed lesser birds, appropriate only to lower-ranked noblemen who were forbidden from owning true falcons.

According to Margaret Wade Labarge, author of Mistress, Maids and Men: Baronial Life in the Thirteenth Century, quoting the Book of St Albans, a 14th century treatise on falconry,

[T]he falcon, i.e. the peregrine, was reserved for the prince and the noble.  The yeoman might have a goshawk, while the sporting priest was only allowed a sparrow-hawk, which was still another notch down the scale of birds. (p. 171)

Bells and jesses

Frederick II and one of his falcons

Medieval falconry required considerable money and time, not only in the acquisition of a bird appropriate to a lord’s station, but also in both its training and maintenance.

With the sport of falconry being as prized as it was, the proper care of birds was of utmost importance to their owners.  Although the Gieses reveal that, “A favorite bird shared his master’s bedroom and accompanied him daily on his wrist” (p. 128), the majority of birds, when not in the sky, spent their time in a structure specially constructed to meet their needs.

The Gieses explain:

One of the essential buildings in a castle courtyard was the mews where the hawks roosted and where they took refuge during molting season.  It was spacious enough to allow limited light, had at least one window, and a door large enough for the falconer to pass through with a bird on his wrist.  The floor was covered with gravel or coarse sand, changed at regular intervals.

In the semidarkness inside, perches of several sizes were adapted to different kinds of birds, some high and well out from the wall, others just far enough off the floor to keep the bird’s tail feathers from touching.  Outside stood low wooden or stone blocks … on which the falcon’s “weathered”, that is, became accustomed to the world outside the mews. (pp. 128-9)

The training of birds was said to require “infinite patience and care” (Gies and Gies, p. 129), the falconer who trained them being a well-regarded servant of any household.

Many treaties and manuals about falconry were written during the Middle Ages, the most famous of which is the De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Falconry), an important work of medieval zoology written by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily and Jerusalem.

This volume laid out a comprehensive program of training for a bird, which would have been obtained as either an eyas (a nestling taken from a tree or cliff-top) or a brancher – a newly fledged bird that is caught using a net.

In preparation for training, the falconer did the following to the bird:

  • Trimmed its talons
  • Temporarily sewed its eyes shut
  • Attached jesses (strips of leather with rings at the end) to its legs
  • Attached small bells to its feet
  • Tied it to a perch with a leash, and
  • Placed a leather hood with an opening for the beak over its head.

The goal of all this was to enhance the bird’s senses of taste, hearing, and touch.

The first lesson for the bird was to learn to stand on a person’s wrist.  To do this, the falconer would carry the bird around for days, slowly coaxing it with food, singing, gentle stroking, and the un-sewing and re-sewing of its eyes at different times of the night for gradually longer intervals until it was finally exposed to daylight (at which time its eyesight was permanently returned).

Subsequent lessons included getting the bird accustomed to being carried while on horseback, teaching it to return to its master when released, and finally, how to hunt other birds.  According to the Gieses,

Dogs, usually, greyhounds, were often used in teaching the gerfalcon to capture larger birds.  This meant special training for the dogs as well as the falcons, so that the dog did not desert the hunt to chase a rabbit.  Dog and falcon were fed together to enhance their comradeship, while the dog was trained to run with the falcon and help her seize her prey. (p. 133)

During this training, the falconer made certain to keep the naturally excitable bird calm so it didn’t try to fly off its perch, bite at its jesses, or scratch at its head.

A lady watching her hawk kill a duck (from the Taymouth Hours, England, 14th century)

Sober, patient, and chaste

The role of falconer came with a lengthy list of qualifications.  Adelard of Bath, a 12th century scholar quoted in Labarge, insisted a falconer “not only must be sober, patient, and chaste, alert and of sweet breath, but must avoid those from whom hawks might become infested with vermin.” (p. 171).

Frederick II, paraphrased by the Gieses, further required that his falconers,

[B]e of medium size – not too large to be agile and not too small to be strong.  Besides the cardinal virtue of patience, the falconer needed acute hearing and vision, a daring spirit, and even temper.  He could not be a heavy sleeper, lest he fail to hear the falcon’s bells in the night. And he had to be well versed in the ailments of hawks and their remedies[.] (pp. 133-4)

The meticulousness of these requirements speak to the fervour that kings and their magnates, both lay and clerical, felt toward the sport of falconry.  This was to the point that the theft of a bird could be punished by excommunication, while a nobleman would go to considerable expense to recover a bird that had been accidentally lost.

In the words of the Gieses, “Proud, fierce, and temperamental, the falcon had a mystique and a mythology.” (p. 128)

Falconry was even considered an appropriate sport for nobly-born women, with many medieval works of art depicting women engaged in both hawking and hunting.

According to Marty Williams and Anne Echols, authors of Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages, the traditional courtly explanation for women’s fondness for and skill at falconry was because women resembled the birds in both being beautiful and difficult to care for (p. 200).

The authors go on to quote John of Salisbury, a cleric with his own ideas on the matter.  According to John, women were good hunters “because bad people were always more predatory than good ones.” (p. 200)

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

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